Give or take it’s about 2900 miles, roughly 44 hours without stops from coast to coast. We had given ourselves plenty of time for exploring and spontaneity, but our first destination was The 18th Annual Rainbow Gathering, on the Nevada-Idaho Jarbidge quadrangle of the Humboldt National Forest.
Rainbow Gatherings, as explained by Wikipedia, are temporary intentional communities, typically held in outdoor settings, and espousing and practicing ideals of peace, love, harmony, freedom and community, as a consciously expressed alternative to mainstream popular culture, consumerism, capitalism and mass media. The gatherings are an expression of a Utopian impulse, combined with Bohemianism, hipster and hippie culture, with roots clearly traceable to the counterculture of the 1960s. The original Rainbow Gathering was in 1972, and has been held annually in the United States from July 1 through 7 every year on National Forest land. Throughout the year, regional and international gatherings are held in the United States and throughout the rest of the world respectively.
By the time we hit Utah, there were droves of brightly painted VW and school busses, all heading in the same direction. Everyone was honking and waving on the highway, flashing peace signs. The love, excitement and energy was palpable. We met some really cool people in Salt Lake who let us stay the night at their place before we finished the last leg of the drive in the morning. Our old VW bus was devoid of any air conditioning, and was prone to overheating so we were to leave at the break of dawn under cooler temperatures to cross the desert into the gathering. Being hippies, we spent the evening getting acquainted with our new rainbow brothers over numerous bong hits, in a massage circle, of course.
As the sun crept up, transforming the mountains into glowing heaps of orange light, we said our goodbyes and got back on the road. The remainder of the trip was mainly twisting, narrow mountain roads. We were now part of the herd; this must have been what it looked like driving into Woodstock.
Many hours later, we arrived in the early afternoon and pulled in to park at the top of the mountain amongst the thousands of other cars, vans and busses. The smell of sagebrush and marijuana was thick in the hot desert air. We strapped on our packs and began the trek.
“Welcome home, Sister.” A young topless woman with long brown hair smiled genuinely at me as she climbed up the same steep dirt road that I was descending. I grinned back as my newfound “sister” hugged me. I was, in fact, giddily overjoyed to be here, being welcomed to a “home” I had never known, among “family” I had never met. I continued down the serpentine footpath, leaning forward under the weight of the 40-pound backpack that held my tent, sleeping bag, flashlight, biodegradable soap, toilet paper and other items I’d be needing.
On this last afternoon in June, the hot dust was filling my nostrils. Although it was about 98 degrees, snow glistened on the peak before me. The valley where we were heading was three and a half miles down from the canyon’s rim. The Shoshone tribes that once held this land never lived upon it, they revered these rocky promontories and sagebrush-covered desert slopes as a sanctuary where they would meet only for special ceremonies.
Here I was, an 18-year-old girl, following the same ancient practice, along with some 7,500 other celebrants filling the canyon during the first week of July. My Rainbow brothers and sisters included activists for peace, the environment, the rights of animals and the legalization of marijuana; mystics, poets, artists, storytellers, musicians and dancers; Native Americans and students of tribal culture; dreadlocked Rastafarians, bald Hare Krishna’s and Mohawked-and-tattooed motorcyclists; 1960s political radicals; 1980s homeless families; “back-to-the-landers”; Deadheads carrying on the legacy of the Woodstock generation; ideological nudists; holistic and alternative healers – members of the counterculture of every stripe and pattern. At the time, I just identified them as hippies.
During that week at the Rainbow Gathering, I lived a freedom I can’t imagine having anywhere else. Sometimes that freedom meant diving naked to swim in an icy river. Or jumping into a mud puddle and dancing around covered with muck. Sometimes I was awe-struck, in the solitude of my tent, by the sight of the ridge before me turning golden in the first morning light, or of the millions of western stars sparkling in the night sky as I never see them at home. The desert climate was extreme. During the day the temperature would climb into the 100’s, but at night it would be so cold that after passing countless joints around blazing campfires, we would go to our tents layered in thick wool sweaters, shivering in our sleeping bags, then within an hour of sunrise, we would awake in pools of sweat.
My head and body tingled to newly awakened senses as I fell asleep and awoke to the rhythm of drums, drank sweet spring water to the piping of flutes and the strum of guitars, walked to meals to the blowing of a conch shell. The feel of hot sun, frigid river, fresh desert winds, and warm hugs of so many people living not by rote or rules, but by life routes they mapped out themselves.
Rob, our friend from back home, was meeting us there a few days later, which meant we would have to hike back up to meet him. We had previously set a date and time to meet him before we arrived, this was before cell phones and the nearest pay phone was at least a few hours away. When we had first arrived at the gathering, we were just a trio of self conscious girls clad in jean cut-offs and tank-tops, feeling slightly awkward and inhibited around all of the accepted nudity. It was something we had never witnessed before. I was so self-conscious. I remember the first time I emerged from my tent, wearing nothing but a pair of old cut-offs and a few crystals tied to thick cords of leather around my neck, and no one noticed or cared, somehow you drew more attention when clothed. It felt incredible, it was so hot, and there was something deeply liberating about it. But when we all hiked back up to greet Rob at the top of the mountain, topless, his jaw hit the ground. It was pretty funny. Everyone there was naked, there was no sexualization about it. But here’s this guy from home whom we’ve known for years, seeing these three girls topless for the first time, in public on top of a mountain. It was weird for about 30 seconds, then no one gave it a second thought.
Money had no survival value here. Nothing is sold at Rainbow gatherings; the only time you see cash is when the “Magic Hat” is passed around for contributions. Everything worked on a barter system. Sometimes it meant doing communal work that I chose freely and performed happily with other Rainbows. I was of the Family as I scrubbed greasy pots for one of the communal kitchens that were feeding thousands of us for free, or stirred a cauldron of beans over a wood fire. I carried my spoon and although I brought in no food, I was always fed, always loved, and always happy.
“It’s the Rainbow way.” I was to experience “the Rainbow way” dozens of times every day – when campers would share their food, their water, their tools, their medicine with complete strangers; when I would be struggling with a heavy load and suddenly feel someone taking it for me; when I heard a man say to a woman who had lost her sweater, “I have a very special sweater that means a lot to me – I want to give it to you”.
In the July Fourth Peace Circle, the week’s crowning ceremony, thousands of us spent an hour or so arranging ourselves into a circle to be ready for the world peace prayer at high noon. It was unlike anything I have ever felt or seen to this day. A chain of people holding on to one another, stretched out so far that the people on the other side were as small as ants. Once arranged, we prayed together in silence for world peace. Then after, our chanted “Ommmmm” swelled until it bounced off the canyon walls, escalated into a howl and then quieted, we locked arms and sang the old words, “All we are saying is ‘Give peace a chance.'”
It was over 100 degrees, the sun was beating down and my head was swimming, I felt like I had a current running through me, and it was so intense that I actually passed out. All I remember is coming to under a shady tent with women placing cool tea bags on my face and wrists, smiling faces comforting me.
The next few days involved a collaborative cleanup in order to leave the land exactly the way we had found it. Contact information was shared, plans to meet up on the road were put in place with friends we had made, and on the last day, we packed up our tents, all of our belongings, and began the trek back up the mountain.
It had been 10 days since we had seen any remote sign of civilization. Not a car, not the glow of lights from a distant town or city, running water, electricity, toilets, nothing. The only bathing that took place was when you were finally so caked with dust and desert dirt that you took the plunge into the icy, and I mean icy river. I had one of the best experiences of my life at that gathering, but there was one thing on the other side that was calling my name, and that was a hot shower.
Categories: Adventures & Travels